by Conor Gereg
And just like that, an elite college hoops conference finds itself scrambling to maintain dominance. Basketball, men’s or women’s, has never driven conference realignment decisions, universally taking a backseat to football, yet the Big 12’s loss of both Texas and Oklahoma may capsize one of the sport’s most powerful basketball leagues.
The Big 12 finished 4th in last year’s NCAA’s Evaluation Tool (NET) among the nation’s 32 conferences while also producing Baylor as the National Champion to boot. While those are impressive bullet points, they don’t mean much in comparison to the real cash cow of college athletics: football.
Driven by football relevancy and television revenue, the tectonic plates didn’t just shift with the Big 12’s July fracturing, they imploded. Left behind in the rubble are the fans, athletes, and coaches of the hardwood.
“I think football-driven expansion has the potential to touch nearly every league in D-I, including leagues that do not sponsor football,” Matt Brown of Extra Points told NCAA Hoops Digest. “In particular, I’d look at affiliate members in the Sun Belt, or other basketball-focused schools in increasingly football-driven leagues who may decide to seek arrangements that are better institutional and athletic fits.”
It’s rare for an FBS program to prioritize preserving basketball over football in a world where, according to industry sources, football can fund between 70%-85% of media deals. In other words, an instance of football’s value can be seen in the AAC’s 12-year $1 billion television deal with ESPN signed in 2019 where only $150,000-$300,000 is attributable to basketball. Regardless, basketball still reigns supreme for some who still value geographic, cultural, and institutional matches in realignment.
“UConn’s decision to go back to the Big East would be a recent example [of a university prioritizing basketball over football],” Brown added, noting that UConn’s departure from the AAC meant forgoing the automatic FBS bowl bid in exchange for joining a high-profile basketball league and, in turn, becoming a football independent. “If the entire college athletics world zigs one direction, don’t be surprised if a few other institutions decide to zag,” Brown added.
Just a year before UConn’s announcement, Gonzaga turned down an invitation to the football-sponsoring Mountain West Conference. The deal would have placed the Zags in an FBS league though AD Mike Roth told the Associated Press, “…we appreciate the Mountain West pursuing us. However, for several reasons, maintaining our status in the WCC is the right thing for Gonzaga University.”
Returning to the WCC instead of the Mountain West came with perks that may become more common if it means luring national brands like Gonzaga. The 2018 agreement gave the Bulldogs exactly what they needed to stay home: fewer conference games which allow additional opportunities to schedule marque out-of-league matchups, a double-bye in the WCC tournament for top seeds, a media deal that’s weighed heavily in their favor, and the right to keep their annual tournament units which can total $1.68 million per appearance.
Could Gonzaga revisit the arrangement should conference-mate BYU depart? Of course, but UConn and Gonzaga made substantial decisions with basketball as the priority.
Basketball will Survive but More Change is Looming
According to last year’s NET rankings, four of the NCAA’s top ten leagues were purely basketball conferences or non-FBS leagues: Big East, Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference, and the SoCon. Some think that these basketball-centric conferences may play some role in upsetting the NCAA’s heavyweights.
“Many [power conference schools] already have no interest with March Madness `Cinderellas’ and first weekend underdog wins,” Kevin McNamara of KevinMcSports.com told us. For nearly 30 years McNamara covered the Providence Friars, a school that hasn’t sponsor football since 1941 yet has consistently carved out a niche among college sport’s most powerful basketball brands. “I also know that the Texas’ and Floridas and Nebraskas of the world are tired of getting beat in basketball by schools that spend a fraction of what they do in athletic budgets.”
Will the SEC, Big 10, PAC 12, and ACC remain synergetic with basketball-first leagues in perpetuity? Longtime college basketball voices like McNamara are skeptical.
“While schools like Gonzaga, Villanova, and the bulk of the Big East can certainly run with the football schools on a regular basis, this latest over-reach/money-grab by the Southeastern Conference feels like a game-changer,” McNamara said. “If this sparks 4, or even 3, large Super Conferences, I do see more and more movement towards a breakaway from the NCAA.”
Saying goodbye to the century-old entity that is the NCAA would be groundbreaking. Most would agree that such a scenario may be years, if not decades away. Regardless, the landscape of college sports is undergoing a period of unprecedented change.
“When the dust settles, I reckon a lot of leagues are going to look different,” Brown said. “So many DI leagues were evaluating realignment proposals even before the Texas SEC bombshell dropped. I doubt it will stop now.”
As one Athletic Director said, “football pays the bills”, yet for schools that prioritize basketball, fans are left wondering to what lengths they’ll be dragged in the name of profits. It’s never been more uncertain as to what the college athletics landscape will look like once football has shuffled the natura